Sunday, August 12, 2007

1980s Retro Horror/Comedy Back From The Dead!

Although they’re about a generation out of step with the rest of the world now, the Universal Monsters remain some of the most recognizable creations in the world. There’s just something eternally cool about Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Werewolf, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Even if a kid doesn’t immediately recognize these monsters, he wants to know who they are.

Unlike Jason, Freddy Krueger, or Michael Meyers, the Universal Monsters stand out at first glance. They just look different. Where Freddy, Jason, and Michael Meyers tend to look like ordinary people gone really wrong, the Universal Monsters somehow look regal and more otherworldly. Dracula looks like a lord in his suit and cape. Frankenstein’s monster looks totally rad with the bolts and the scars all over his face. The Mummy looks decrepit, but Brendan Fraser’s franchise (which is getting a new edition and 2008) taught the movie-going audience to fear the Mummy in a whole new way. The Werewolf, especially with his human side not totally evoking sympathy, looks kind of corny but is a definite archetype of the lycanthrope. And the Creature from the Black Lagoon – no one has ever looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

To make those monsters even more different, all of them had some hint of tragedy clinging to them. Dracula could’ve been a good guy if he hadn’t gotten bitten by vampire. Frankenstein’s monster was actually childlike at the beginning until he was mistreated and finally hunted to turn him into a vengeful creature. The Werewolf suffered a gypsy’s curse. The Mummy just wanted to rest undisturbed until grave robbers made off with his goods. And the Creature from the Black Lagoon just wanted his fish bowl left alone – and maybe a little love.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Universal Monsters ruled the silver screen. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and the Mummy all put in their original appearances and lurched, flew, and howled their way to fame. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was a latecomer, not putting in an appearance until 1954. But even after only one movie, the creature immediately became a staple in the league of monsters.

Steven Spielberg’s sponsored movie, The Goonies, was largely responsible for The Monster Squad coming to the big screen. Scriptwriters Fred Dekker and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) entered into the deal to bring the Universal Monsters into the 1980s. They decided to do it in a campy style for kids, and use a larger-than-life backdrop for the story: kids who save the world from monsters.

However, Universal Studios wasn’t happy – or compliant – about the use of the characters. That’s why in the movie the monsters look somewhat different than they did in the original films. At one point Universal Studios threatened to sue. Plus the special effects and makeup were better in 1987.

As the story goes, our young heroes, Sean and Patrick, are outcasts from school. They’re not cool. They’re not jocks. They don’t fit in. In fact, when they’re introduced, they’re in trouble with the principal for drawing monsters in class. We get to see just for a moment that the principal was probably once just like them. He knows all about monsters too, but he tells them they need to learn more than monsters.

They have a tree house getaway, a sign that says “No Girls” that doesn’t work on Sean’s little sister Phoebe, comic books, and monster magazines galore. Oh, and crosses. Lots and lots of crosses. They are the ultimate nerds waiting for adventure. Especially after they recruit cool bad boy Rudy, who wants to join up with them because their tree house overlooks the bedroom of a stunning girl.

Unfortunately, they’re about to get their fondest wish: to meet monsters.

In the prologue to the movie, we see Dracula devising a desperate plan that involves a mysterious gem. Abraham Van Helsing is on hand to combat Dracula and the other monsters. At the end of this, we find out that Van Helsing screwed up.

In the present day a hundred years later, Dracula comes to town looking for the mysterious gem. The boys discover that the gem is the balance between good and evil and only appears in the world every 100 years. As long as the gem exists, good will exist in the world and evil cannot triumph over good. But once the gem is destroyed, evil will flourish. He gathers the other monsters to him and they begin searching an old mansion.

Sean gets Van Helsing’s diary from a garage sale because his mother knows he likes old books. Of course this is a convenient conceit of the largest kind, but it’s okay because we’re just here to have fun.

After a decent buildup that’s not quite too long, the story spins into full action mode. Given that the film was made twenty years ago, the pacing isn’t too bad. I was greatly aware that it moved more slowly than most of today’s movies. Still, I watched it with my nine year old and he didn’t complain too much or get antsy waiting for something to happen. The action was more low-key than I remembered, but it still got the job done. I just remembered that there was a lot more action and that it was bigger.

Another thing that made me a little uncomfortable was that in spite of the PG-13 rating, the movie contained more swearing and adult situations then I remembered. Maybe I was more jaded in those days. I honestly can’t remember. But I know that today’s movies don’t seem to contain as much of either.

I had a good time cruising down nostalgia lane watching The Monster Squad with my son. For a while there, we were both nine years old. Back when monsters were really cool and you didn’t have to worry about dying because you knew you were going to beat them at the end.

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